EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Coast News’ three-week series on marijuana in North County.
REGION – For several years, city leaders throughout North County have debated about regulations surrounding the legalization of cannabis.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups, both for and against cannabis legalization, have been key players in the world of cannabis policy, pushing the conversation along, one way or the other.
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized recreational or “adult-use” cannabis for personal use and cultivation. This means that cities cannot ban the indoor cultivation of cannabis for personal use, but they can still choose to regulate or ban all other cultivation purposes and recreational businesses.
In every North County city, the majority of voters supported Prop 64, and as city governments continue to grapple with the issue, advocacy groups on either side are making their voices heard.
The Coalition for a Drug-Free Escondido, which was started in 2003, aims to prevent youth substance abuse in Escondido, including alcohol and marijuana, through awareness, prevention, advocacy and action.
Members of the coalition have previously met with elected officials and spoken at City Council meetings advocating for their cause.
Alicia Espinoza, program coordinator, explained that they hope Escondido maintains the prohibition on marijuana dispensaries.
“Based on the data that we’ve seen, youth and adults already have access to marijuana. It’s not an issue of access,” Espinoza said. “For Escondido specifically, we have an excess of alcohol retailers. Obviously we are a largely minority community, and in these communities that have large minority populations, there’s usually a high number of liquor outlets, a high number of fast food restaurants, and we don’t want now to have that same problem with dispensaries.”
Espinoza added that youth substance abuse is continually rising, as well as crime rates, and the legalization of dispensaries in Escondido would only worsen those problems.
Dallin Young, chair of San Diego’s Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, told The Coast News that he regularly meets with city leaders and elected officials throughout North County hoping to stop the spread of “misinformation” surrounding cannabis.
“I don’t think that we have seen any of the negative impacts that people have prophesied of when we talked about cannabis legalization years ago,” Young said. “Our streets are not crime infested around all these facilities. In fact, we’ve actually seen that when these cannabis facilities do pop up, they actually create even safer neighborhoods because of all of the different security measures in place.”
“I think that’s a big misconception,” Young continued. “I think a lot of the people that are opposed to legalization focus on crime and youth use, and those are all of the things that we find in the illicit marketplace, we are not finding any of those problems around the legal, licensed operators.”
Young added that legal dispensaries are also contributing significant amounts of tax revenue to their jurisdictions, as well as increasing property values.
The North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC) is also a key advocacy group that aims to reduce the harm of substances in Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista, according to their mission statement.
Erica Leary, program manager, said there’s not enough emphasis on the health risks associated with marijuana use.
“The people that are supportive of the regulated market, they see expanding the regulated market with little to no limits as the answer to eliminating the illicit market, and we don’t have any evidence that that would be true,” Leary said. “There has to be some kind of balance… There’s too much focus on the money and profit and very little focus on public health.”
Leary added that NCPC members often attend City Council meetings to urge caution and share public health research. They also facilitate youth leadership and youth coalition work in local high schools and partner with other programs like the County Office of Education.
“When we look at marijuana policy, we’re discouraged that we’re not seeing much public health attention given to what we know works in alcohol and tobacco,” Leary said. “So when we see movements to crack down on flavored nicotine products and e-cigarettes to minors, we’re not seeing the same concern about flavored marijuana products or high-potency fun-looking marijuana products.”
Ed Wicker, a marijuana business attorney, has also had his hand in local advocacy surrounding cannabis legalization throughout San Diego County and the state.
Wicker said he has met with many elected officials throughout California in the hopes of creating policies that he says aligns with what the majority of voters want.
“There’s no good policy reason to continue to frustrate the legalization of cannabis,” Wicker said. “The state of California is fully committed and has even deemed cannabis to be an essential business, so for local governments, such as Escondido to hamstring the state is an irrational policy.”
In North County, Escondido, Carlsbad and San Marcos have passed ordinances to outlaw commercial marijuana activities. The City of Vista approved a ballot measure in 2018 allowing up to 11 dispensaries to open in the city, becoming the first in North County to allow storefront marijuana sales.
Both Oceanside and Encinitas also allow medical and recreational cannabis use but are in different stages of implementation.
“This is a time that’s very difficult,” Wicker continued. “There is a lot of economic suffering and to prevent small businesses from getting off the ground and subsequently denying theses cities of receiving a tax revenue is a policy that does not make any sense. So I feel very strongly that this needs to be corrected.”
Wicker added that he frequently receives inquiries from individuals wanting to start a cannabis business, but he has to tell them that it’s extremely difficult to achieve this objective and that they may not be able to go forward with their dream in the area they live in.
“This is a situation that’s not tenable, and the local government and the federal government really need to follow cannabis policy that’s based on science and based upon respecting the will of the people,” Wicker said.